In this piece, Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife, Neurosurgeon Eban Alexander gives his account of a brain event that made him see the light. (h/t @SkepticViews)
This is the dumbest piece of God promotion I’ve seen for some time. I wouldn’t have this neuroscientist anywhere near my brain. He says how much he wants to believe, has a specific brain experience that matches reports of experiences by other people, and that’s it – job done, God exists.
1) Auditory hallucinations can be auto-generated in the brain without sound input through the ears, so it’s possible for someone with a brain to ‘hear voices’; and some people who ‘hear voices’ attribute them to God or Jesus. He should know this. Humans hallucinate.
2) The brain perceptions experienced (bright light, vast space, God, etc.), and the reality of the things supposedly conceived (heaven, God), are quite distinct. The experience of the perceptions is no guide to the reality of the thing perceived. That’s why we call them hallucinations. That near-death is a rare experience for a human brain (except for those with a one way ticket, but then they don’t come back to report), that it is difficult to say what we would expect to experience. Novel brain experiences are not a sufficient guide to reality.
3) People will have similar experiences because, duh, they have brains too. We should expect that experiences of near death will be similar, so the similarity of the reports should not be taken as mounting evidence for the thing claimed of the experience.
4) As others have pointed out in the article’s comment stream, similar experiences can be achieved by using drugs. And by stimulation of the brain in the lab or operating theatre. There is no reason to suppose that the perceptions contained during these experiences represent a reality, and plenty of evidence that they don’t.
5) On what grounds does Alexander suppose that his perceived experiences occurred in real-time while he was unconscious? He has no way of knowing, because he was unconscious! Only later, when his consciousness returns, is he able to report on his experiences. For all he knows his brain might be constructing a completely false memory, as if it had occurred, as part of the process of recovering consciousness. Perhaps this is what it’s like when a brain is ‘turned on’ again. Being a neuroscientist he should know of this and many other rational possibilities.
There’s a problem here that theologians, many philosophers, and it appears some scientists, have with the nature of the brain and its relation to our inner thoughts and experiences. Lurking behind views expressed by those like Alexander is a presupposition that the mind is distinct from the brain and that what we experience in the mind has some distinct reality. I call this the primacy of thought problem, where we suppose that the mind and our thoughts, through our Rationalism, is the primary source of knowledge. To some extent this is understandable, since as physical animals we have to wait until our brains achieve a certain degree of complexity and experience before they become self-aware enough to do any reasoned thinking. It’s then as if our ‘mind’ has been switched on, and then exists as something independent of the brain. Contributing to this feeling is the fact that our self-awareness, our introspection, can only go so deep. We cannot, for example, perceive the individual neurons firing away as we think. We only perceive the thoughts, not the cause of the thoughts. We have no physical sensation in the brain, like touch or pain, that tells us what is actually going on inside our heads as we think. So, we feel detached, as free-floating consciousness.
In the context of this post Alexander is in no position to say what caused his experience. All he ends up with is a perception of an experience – a brain experience.
What a dumb-ass. He was lost to religion before he started on his unconscious journey; he wanted it; he says as much. Confirmation bias?
Not just the medical impossibility that I had been conscious during my coma…
Is this guy really a neuroscientist? It’s difficult to say to what extent a brain is ‘inactive’ during a coma, or other states where external appearances imply unconsciousness. It’s not even fully understood to what extent there is a real barrier between consciousness and un-conscious activity.
What happened to me demands explanation.
There are plenty answers to choose from. You can go with the simple functioning of a brain under stress and bad health that is capable of inducing perceptual experiences that are not associated with any reality; or you can go for your God explanation, because you want to.
Today they are realities. Not only is the universe defined by unity, it is also-I now know-defined by love.
Of course this statement tells us more about Alexander’s understanding of ‘knowing’, his views on epistemology and what it is for an animal brain to ‘know’ something, his commitment to Rationalism.
The universe as I experienced it in my coma is – I have come to see with both shock and joy – the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways.
It’s hard for this statement to be wrong, because of course it is a fatuous profundity – a deepity, as Dennett would say. Quite meaningless in that it could be taken to mean anything. A straight forward physical interpretations is that yes, the physical brain has physical behaviours that under some conditions give the impression of a spiritual experience while at the same time the very same brain is governed entirely by the natural laws of science as we discover them.
But that belief, that theory [of the brain], now lies broken at our feet.
No, just at his feet, as he perceives it to be broken; as perceived by his broken brain that has had a perceptual experience that has left him with the impression that the imagined content of that experience is real.
When the castle of an old scientific theory begins to show fault lines…
The fault lines are as imagined as the content of his dreams.
… no one wants to pay attention at first … The looks of polite disbelief, especially among my medical friends, soon made me realize what a task I would have getting people to understand the enormity of what I had seen …
Oh dear. The plight of the unbelieved prophet. Everyone else is blind. Why can’t they see?
One of the few places I didn’t have trouble getting my story across was a place I’d seen fairly little of before my experience: church.
No fucking kidding!
I’m still a doctor, and still a man of science every bit as much as I was before I had my experience.
Well, I’d say not. Unless we take this to mean that he was already lost to science in his desire to believe.
I only hope he doesn’t turn into one of these evangelical doctors that you get from time to time. My mother is a believer in God of sorts, but she decided that enough was enough when at her local GP practice (an evangelical husband and wife team) her doctor suggested at the end of a consultation that they should hold hands and pray together for her recovery and well being. Preying on the sick by praying for them. But you can see this coming with Alexander.
Update: Sam Harris has chipped in: This Must Be Heaven covers more detail, including comment by Mark Cohen. As well as going to town on Alexander, he also dishes it out to Newsweek. Harris is as eloquent as usual, so it really is worth a read. Pleas do.
Descriptive Ethics: How people behave, and what they believe about morally.
Normative Ethics: What are the moral codes we live by? How do we resolve moral problems?
Meta-Ethics: What is ethics all about? Where do we get our moral codes from?
Meta-Meta-Ethics?: What can we understand about ethics when a Harvard professor who has engaged in the study of the evolutionary origins of ethics is found to have committed misconduct in his research into non-human primate behaviour? What does this say about his work on the origins of morality if we can’t be sure his misconduct does not extend to his work on morality? Do you have to understand ethics and abide by ethical standards when studying ethics in order to be sure you do actually understand ethics? Would it be acceptable for a moral nihilist to ‘cheat’ on his research into moral nihilism, and would he actually be cheating? I blame Rationalism for getting us into this sort of mess.
The results are out, as reported in the Boston Globe: Former Harvard professor Marc Hauser fabricated, manipulated data, US says. (Report here).
Here’s Hauser in a POI podcast about his book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong.
This case has been going on for a while and now the details are out in the report. The report covers some very specific research on non-human primate cognition, which does not particularly address the question of the origins of morality. And, of course, there is no suggestion that any of the collaborators or other researchers investigating the origins of morals have done anything wrong. It doesn’t even address Hauser’s specific contribution to the work on the origins or morality. But it does leave a lot of suspicion hanging there. It does leave a nasty taste in the mouth.
Science isn’t infallible, because it is carried out by fallible humans; and though the methodologies of science are intended to compensate for our fallibilities they too are implemented by fallible humans. Our fallibility seems inescapable. I guess Harvard will want to bury this as soon as possible; and without evidence to suggest further problems with his work I don’t suppose any public enquiry will look any deeper.
There are genuine and inherent difficulties associated with the psych sciences. This only makes matters more difficult, for other researchers and us onlookers.
Unfortuneately the ‘incompatibilst’ term there is not the same use of the term on the JC post comments.
And so welcome to the wonderful mixed up world of philosophy.
I’ll make some general points but also try to focus on this issue of incompatibilism. It’s worth asking ‘incompatible with what?’ and then note the following points.
1) The non-compatibilists (I’ll get to incompatibilist later) commenting on the JC post are determinists who claim that free-will is incompatible with determinism, and that we live in a deterministic universe, and so there is no free-will. But this particular free-will that is rejected is that of dualism – the notion of the mind being something separate from the body, that for religious believers has some existence of its own that might live on after death of the body, such as the soul. We non-compatibilists determinists think there’s no evidence for such a mind, and that everthing is physical, and so the brain is a physical system and that free-will is merely the human feeling that we do have such a mind. This is why we think free-will is an illusion – that is the dualist free-will is an illusion.
2) Compatibilists also think everything is physical. They don’t think there is a separate mind, or a soul. They are not dualists in this respect. But, they think that what happens in a human brain is so complex and so self-contained that it does make sense to think of it as free-will.
One part of the dispute is about whether, for low level philosophical and scientific purposes, we should abandon the use of the term ‘free-will’ to describe what both compatibilists and non-compatibilists agree on. There are other issues, such as that about the attribution of responsibility, that seem to cloud the dibate, but the core issue is whether we should use the term free-will for what both sides really do agree on, that is what is happening in a brain, particular when some behaviours are frames as (a) ‘it makes decisions’ (compatibilist) or (b) ‘is caused to produce an outcome that we commonly call a decision’ (non-compatibilist)
3) The term ‘determinist’ sometimes causes confusion because we all accept that quantum physics introduces indeterminism into our understanding of the universe. There are several sub-issues here. Even a fully deterministic universe would still be indeterminate to humans because it is too complex to determine all the detailed outcomes. And quantum events, once they occur, have deterministic effects. And quantum effects are not sufficient to give back the dualist the free-will they are looking for. All this has to be accounted for when interpreting how non-compatibilists determinists use the term determinism. Many, possibly most, compatibilists will also agree with these points, so determinism isn’t specifically a problem of contention. Except that a few compatibilists do wonder if quantum effects play a part in what they perceive to be free-will. Having said that, non-compatibilists would probably agree that quantum effects can have a moment-by-moment effect that makes the universe and any brain process (e.g. a decision) indeterminate, but would still not call this free-will. So, even give or take some variation in the strictness of the use of the term ‘determinism’ many compatibilists and non-compatibilists still agree on the physical basis of brain fucntion and still dispute the use of the term ‘free-will’.
4) Now for the Stanford ‘Incompatibilism’. The title and the introduction to that article use the term to describe what is essentially a dualist free-will account. It is portraying incompatibilists as those people who think that there is a free-will that is incompatible with determinism. Meanwhile in our discussion here some of us have picked up on the use of ‘incompatibilists’ as being the determinists that think free-will is incompatible with determinism.
From the Stanford article: “According to McCann (1998: 163-64), when one makes a decision, intrinsic to the decision is one’s intending to make that very decision.”
When compatibilists make such statements the determinists see this as a dualist statement – but in this instance it is a dualist statement. The qestion is, what caused the ‘intending’? Answer: physical activity in the brain. What caused ‘that’ physical activity? Answer: more physical activity. The problem for determinists is that when compatibilists make such statements we know they don’t really mean dualist free-will decision, but the compatibilists object when we say this is not free-will because it is still a determined outcome.
More from Stanford: “Kane holds that a free decision or other free action is one for which the agent is “ultimately responsible” (1996b: 35). Ultimate responsibility for an action requires either that the action not be causally determined or, if the action is causally determined, that any determining cause of it either be or result (at least in part) from some action by that agent that was not causally determined (and for which the agent was ultimately responsible).” [my emphasis]
This is pure dualism. This is not the determinism that we non-compatibilists or incompatibilists or determists here are suggesting is the case. This is not the free-will of compatibilists.
5) What’s been happening in the particular JC post is that we’ve adapted the language to use the terms compatibilist and incompatibilists (using the latter as opposed to non-compatibilist or determinist).
Now it may well be that we non-professional-philosophers do misuse philosophical terms sometimes, but we’re in good (bad) company, since many professional philosphers seem to change the meaning of words at the behest of their own free-will (ahem, which they don’t have, of course).
This is also why this ground is covered so often in so many ways, why points are made and re-made in different terms. It’s all part of the process of trying to understand what the hell is going on in the context of incomplete science and a mad history of philosophy that’s all over the place.
Some people deride this process (Oh no! Jerry Coyne is banging on about free-will again! Enough already!). Well, maybe they can only take so much. But for the rest of us these are interesting points, with interesting outcomes (how we view responsibility) that depend on how we view human behaviour, and even how we frame it (free-will as an illusion or a reality).
So, I’m afraid you’ll have to wade through a lot of crap from all sides. At least you can narrow it down to what is basically a love-fest threesome: dualist (actual separate free-will), compatibilist (an emergent free-will worth having), determinist (free-will is an illusion). They are the three main categories, with lots of overlap.
While trying to get to grips with compatibilit free-will I’ve been looking at stuff from Dan Dennette and David Chalmers. Then along comes this post from Jerry Coyne. Trying to clarify my appreciation of the compatibilist case I asked specific questions of ‘Another Matt’, and had the response I was sort of hoping for (i.e. it confirmed what I thought was the physicalist case from compatibilists) from ‘coelsblog’
So, at least in the causal chain I think compatibilists and incompatibilists are on the same planet at least. But several points of contention as I see it, as an incompatibilist, are as follows. Not all compatibilists need hold all these points of view, but that some do, and that these points are raised frequently, causes misunderstanding for an incompatibilist such as myself. This is why I think many incompatibilists see compatibilists being closer to dualism than the underlying physicalism that many compatibilists really hold to.
1) Language and Level
A great deal of the disagreement does seem to revolve around the use of language and, for want of a better word, the ‘level’ at which autonomy is considered. From my response to Another Matt at Comment 7, and coelsblog’s response to me, that at least this incompatibilist agrees with all the underlying physics of that compatibilist, and that the main disagreement is what we are prepared to call free-will.
It seems that the compatibilist, while arguing about the appearance of human behaviour from what we all agree ‘appears’ to be the free-will perspective, is prepared to label that level of autonomy as free-will, while the incompatibilist is focused on stressing the reliance of this higher level autonomy on the physical foundation from which it emerges. The incompatibilist claim that free-will is an illusion is both explicitly denying dualist free-will, a view that the compatibilist agrees with, but also stresses that it’s the dualist free-will that is the illusion, and as such does not like to name the higher level autonomy as free-will bcause that causes confusion elsewhere.
2) Property Dualism (PD)
This page seems to contain a concise statement of property dualism:
“Like materialism, it holds that there is only one type of substance: physical. Property dualism denies the existence of immaterial minds that somehow interact with the physical world, animating unconscious bodies.
Where property dualism parts with materialism is that it does not attempt to reduce mental states to physical states. Mental states, according to the property dualist, are irreducible; there is no purely physical analysis of mind.”
This sounds like the incoherrent guff of irreducible complexity from ID proponents. Everything we know of is reducible to physical laws, except the mind? As much as dualism is denined in one breath it seems to be re-introduced in its negative guise of something not being reducible to physical explanation. In this sense it also sounds very much like sophisticated theology: of course there is no actual ontological God entity, but still, God is within us, we are God, God is the mystery of the univerese, blah, blah, blah.
Property dualism of mind seems no more coherent than property dualism of biology, or chemistry. It comes across to me as two hidden assumptions:
(i) I (the PDist) want there to be free-will, for some reason. This might be because I fear the consequences for social order (see point 3), or because I fear the implied fatalism.
(ii) I am using the argument from incredulity, because I really can’t see how my conscious subjective experience can be explained.
Not very convincing positions to hold. PD seems to be an invented philosophical notion the sole purpose of which is to uphold a position one is already committed to. Big fail.
3) Fear of Consequences
Dan Dennett in this conversation makes this point very clearly.
“Free-will worth wanting … responsibility … all compatible with science … if only that’s what scientists were telling us … but scientists have been on a rampage writing ill-considered public announcements about free-will which … in some case verge on social irresponsibility … The recent flood of books by neuroscientists has very little worthwhile stuff and a lot that’s seriously confused; and now, as we’re actually beginning to get some scientific confirmation, it makes a difference … because … some research shows that if you present people with the claim that science has shown that we don’t really have free-will … they will actually behave less morally; they will be more apt to cheat.”
Yeah, OK, let’s pretend guns don’t exist, because if we say they do they might be used to kill people. I find it astonishing that a philosopher would use an argument from social concern to attack an argument from evidence – evidence that he actually agrees with: that there is no contra-causal free-will. Dennett wants to insist on using the label associated with dualism, because that might persuade people to be good; or, that to remove that label and emphasise the reality of physicalism might lead them to be bad? This doesn’t fit with Dennett’s arguments against religion, where he acknowledges that religion might persuade some people to be good, but that’s not a good enough reason to claim religious beliefs as truths.
Now Dennett may well be a comptibilist from point (1); but then he should stick to arguing that point instead of using the ‘fear of consequences’ argument that is also used by the religious .
Of course the fears are unfounded. There is no escape from responsibility in incompatibilism. Deterministically caused autonomy results in a focul point of action and responsibility: the human being. Avoiding the notion of free-will that is clouded by religious notions, such as the notion of evil, allows us to weigh the attribution responsibility more rationally and less emotively.
Qualia appears to be a made-up concepts used to give a name to internal brain states, as observed by the brain, to give impetus to the notion that these brain states, these qualia, are inexplicable, irreducble, in terms of physical brain states.
This is associated with point (2), but it’s also associated specifically with questions like “What does it feel like to be a bat?”
The idea that this cannot be answered, the inredulity gap again, is what proponents of qualia are relying on.
My view is that qualia, like any other metaphor or model, might have its uses, but it does not pose a problem to the physicalist explanation of subjective experience. The way I look at subjective experience, which of course is a subjective view, is as follows.
Any animal brain senses its environment, and also sense its own body and acts as a control system that allows the animal to survive in its environment. Part of that process is prediction – the automatic prediction of the path a prey animal is taking as it is pursued, for example. This involves feedback systems that continuously monitor and react to the environment, and the animal’s own body.
From there a ‘more advanced’ brain can also start to include itself as part of the environment – it can monitor its own processes, to a limited extent. This is rudimentary self-awareness. It aids survival because it allows the animal to not only improve its basic motor responses to the environment but also helps it to improve its own ‘mental’ processing of those responses.
Below this conscious level there is still subjective experience of the brain body system doing its basic stuff – still a subjective perspective, but not conscious, or not self-aware, not the ‘higher level’ conscious subjective experience that this post addresses. The autonomic nervous system, or any non-biological feedback system, could be said to have this low level subjective experience by virtue of the feedback mechanisms it employs – the sensing of one’s own state.
When an animal acquires a conscious self-aware subjective experience, in addition to the non-aware non-conscious subjective experience, then ‘this’ is what it feels like (i.e. how we feel about our subjective experience).
So, when wondering what it feels like to be a bat we can only guess that a bat might or might not have sufficient capability to actually be aware of what it feels like to be a bat
What we can say is that our high level subjective experience is what it feels like to have higher level subjective experiences. Neither us or bats can say what it feels like to have lower level subjective experiences because there is no mechanism available to report those experiences to the self, to the higher level, in our case, and possibly no self to which such experiences could be reported if there were such a mechanism for a bat. Some lower level subjective experiences become higer level subjective experiences by simply delivering messages into the parts of the brain that are aware – e.g. for pain.
I realise I’m taking a liberty with the use of ‘subjective experience’, but I’m extending it into the unconscious with some justification I think. These lover level experiences are certainly subjective in the sense that they belong to, are experienced by, only those parts of the system that experience them. And I think this move has greater justification than inventing a qualia of the gaps.
Who is this ‘I’ or ‘Me’?
Many compatibilist statements that resemble this one, “Do humans choose their actions freely”, can be normalised to the first person I/me: “Do I choose my actions freely”
Some similar examples, taken from Jerry Coyne’s post:
- “exercising their own power of will” -> “exercising my own power of will”
- “who selects one of these options and enacts it” -> “I select one of these options and enact it”
- “because I choose to when I might have other thoughts” – Normalised.
- “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will” – Normalised.
This one attributed to Dennett here:
- “the flexibility to respond in ways that suit themselves and their own purpose” – “the flexibility to respond in ways that suit me and my own purpose”
My question to compatibilists is, what is this ‘I’ if it is not the physical brain-body system? Many, if not all, compatiblists seem to resort to this ‘I’ without explaining what it is, what mechanism is used, what process, what entity it is. Could some compatibilist explain what this ‘I’ is.
To me, a determinist, the ‘I’ seems like a label for the as yet poorly understood complex events that go on in a brain and result in that brain ‘making a decision’. It’s the ‘self’ that experiences self when a michine can examine its own examining processes, when a computer program can monitor its own programming. This process will be determined by all the past history of the development and learning of that brain, and the current inputs that cause the brain to think a decision is necessary. The process will appear as one that has a most recent causal focal point in that brain – that brain has had data wizzing about according to how brains work, and has eventually come up with an output, a decision. Because the brain isn’t fully aware of all this processing now, and the detailed history of development and learning that brought it to this point is not evidence that the brain just ‘made up its own mind’ in any sense that is similar to what a dualist mind would supposedly do. This is the problem with compatibilism for me, this ‘I’ that goes so unexplained that it sounds like a free uncaused mind.
It sounds like the compatibilist is saying that, yes, it’s all physical, but that it transforms into something that is not physical and yet isn’t dualism. There seems to be a mysterious gap that compatibilists argue for, while we incompatibilists insist that no matter how complicated it gets there is no room for anything other than causal determinism.
Though I can see where compatibilists and incompatibilists agree, within elements of point (1), on the physical basis for consciousness and free-will, I also see the labelling of free-will, property dualism, and fear of consequences, qualia, ‘I’, all as positions held by dualists, including the religious, and that’s why I see the compatibilist case not being distinct enough such that it does lead incompatibilists to see compatibilists being closer to dualists in many respects.
Compatibilists sometimes wonder why incompatibilists make them out to be dualists. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it might not actually be a duck, but it’s easy to make the mistake. Point (1) I can agree on to a great extent – that’s where the common ground lies.
It’s still fine for incompatibilists to use terms normally associated with free-will when appropriate – e.g. in every day language. I don’t have a problem using the ‘free-will’ metaphor, any more than using other metaphors. I might say, “I’m flying!”, meaning that whatever I’m doing I’m doing at higher than normal rate; but if I thought I was literally flying it would be an illusion (or a delusion, according to how I felt I was literally flying). I’m happy to use metaphorical language of free-will, knowing it’s metaphorical, while even at the same time realising that to some extent my brain still feels the illusion to be true.
Newenglanbod responded to Jerry Coynes notice that Richard Dawkins has started tweeting:
“I still refuse to get a Twitter account. Communicating at 140 characters per thought is a game I am not willing to play. I also do not wish to be a ‘groupie’ who follows the sound byte pronouncements of other people and especially the often malformed thoughts of their followers.”
But then we get this from newenglandbob, on a post that was about Sam Harris on Free Will: “I prefer the egg rolls to the spring rolls. Some Vietnamese Pho(ph? bò)if they have it.” [87 characters]
And this, on a post about Elliot Sober’s views: “Or potato chips. They also have Wavy to help during the wave function. [70 characters]“
Or this pithy contribution to a post about Sam Harris: “Heh heh.” [8 - not counting smiley emoticon]
To be fair, newenglandbod does contribute more interesting stuff than these examples. My point here is not that these particular comments are inane in any way (they seem off topic to the main post, but they are in context as responses to other comments), just that they seem to contradict the statement “Communicating at 140 characters per thought is a game I am not willing to play”.
Okay, if twitter is so great, what’s so great about it?
As Jerry pointed out, you can use it to broadcast your own blog posts.
Twitter is really useful for following people who tweet but don’t provide feeds to their web sites or blogs, so otherwise I wouldn’t pick up their posts so regularly, say with a news reader.
The whole point of the 140 character limit is to avoid verbose people (guilty) hogging the space. I can scan tons of tweets really quickly, and many (most if you follow the right people) use twitter to link to their posts or other interesting stuff when you want greater detail. The limit is an aid. And for those adicted to longer tweets there are other tools that will take your longer tweet and condense it for presentation on twitter: http://longertweets.com/
And, the 140 limit makes it easy to read on a smart phone, where you can choose to open up links for a more detailed read if you want to.
One of the best features is the retweet, where you simply echo to your followers the tweet of someone you follow. When someone retweets a tweet from someone they follow and that I don’t, I sometimes find new interesting threads to start following.
And retweets are one of the means by which news travels fast on the web. I think it’s hard to deny the contribution of twitter to social change. The Arab spring being a prime example. Try this activist. Take a look at the number of retweets that link to others. This is how they communicate.
And all the news agencies and radio and TV broadcasters have several twitter accounts where you can pick and choose what you’re intersted in: https://twitter.com/guardianscience
I also follow several tweets related to my work, which makes keeping track of events a lot easier.
You can still use twitter as a source without having an account. There are some tools out there, such as Meet The Tweet. Or, if you only follow one or two you only need their twitter name: https://twitter.com/Evolutionistrue.
I get it that there are millions of inane tweets out their keeping you up to date on how much navel fluff they’ve collected today, how much pain they are sufferring at the hands of an unrequited love, or how Jesus will save you. Sometimes even the people worth following can resort to uninteresting stuff. Stephen Fry is a prime example. He’s an interesting guy; love much of his TV and radio work; have picked up many interesting links from his tweets. But sometimes I’m not so interested…
“There’s no escaping the fact. I’m eating a cherry.”
“So, this is Margate, is it? Certainly plenty of fish and chip shops.”
… though no doubt many of his followers are.
Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s bad. It might be popular because it works. Trying it, making your mind up based on that, and then deciding to quit, is all fair stuff. If you’re rejecting tools because of what you suppose them to be, because the notion of what they are, or who uses them, or how popularist they are, offends your rationality, then perhaps you’re not assessing it rationally yourself.
1) Sign up to twitter. You can always close the account after the experiment. You don’t have to write any tweets yourself. In this experiment just use it as a source.
2) Enter each of the following into the search box, hit search and click the ‘Follow’ button. These are just for starters. They are some of the more regular sources that link to articles on science, philosophy and news. Sometimes the authors will link to their own blog posts – you get your blog to automatically post on twitter, so no big deal there.
@sciam, @microphilosophy, @Neurosciencenw, @TelegraphSci, @JandMo, @Neurophilosophy, @tedtalks, @neuroblogs, @TheBrainScience, @docartemis, @edyong209, @nytimes, @Stanford, @PhysicsWorld, @newscientist, @guardianscience, @philosophybites, @NewHumanist, @BBCNews, @Evolutionistrue, @neuropsychblog, @MarcusduSautoy, @BHAhumanists, @bloggingheads, @BoraZ
I’ve left off lots of people associated with my work that won’t be of interest to you. I also follow some celebs: @seanmcarroll, @timminchin, @BadAstronomer, @neiltyson, @SamHarrisOrg, @bengoldacre. Some celebs I don’t follow (honestly): pop-stars
3) As you read your own sources, from news feeds or favourite blogs, start to click on the twotter link so that you follow them too. My list is just a starterlist for you. Develop your own interests. You’ll soon figure out who is worth following. Some people post infrequently, and maybe post interesting stuff even less frequently. They are OK to leave as followed, since they won’t fill up your stream too much.
The ones you may want to stop following are those that tweet very often – like 10+ times a day, but mostly consisting of useless 140 char opinion. Yes, these are the ones that most critics of twitter are objecting too, along with the millions of teens tweeting on the attractiveness of their current idols. Don’t follow them and you won’t see them.
4) Try this for a month. Open twitter every day or so and scroll down and scan down. I just scanned 20 hours of tweets I follow in about three minutes, and I follow 197 people. Of course if I follow a link and read the article I take mroe time. But, hey, what are you doing reading this anyway? If you’ve posted a criticism of twitter on some blog of online news article then you do actually find some stuff on the net worth reading. Now you are using twitter as one more tool to follow your interests, efficiently.
Extension to Experiment
I find some days there are too many interesting things to read up on, but some I really don’t want to lose track of. I don’t find twitter’s favourites tool useful. Instead I use Evernote, plus Evernote clipper, an extension to Google Chrome (and other browsers) which allows me to quickly save an interesting web page url to an Evernote note. I must have hundreds of such quickly saved links that I’ll never get round to reading. But in there are some gems that I vaguely remember seeing but can’t trace again by a google search. After a quick search of my Evernote account I’ve been able to get back to the article, often months later.
If you don’t like Evernote, try Deliscious, or one of the many other means of keeping track of links. These tools, and twitter, ensure that if I must waste much of my time on the internet, at least I’m wasting it on interesting stuff.
An LA Times article reports on Psychologist Timothy D. Wilson’s complaint that psychologists are badly done to by members of the ‘hard’ sciences.
Ironically it’s psychology that’s the ‘hard’ science, in the sense of most difficult do, because of the complexity of the subjects.
Physicists have been in a tizz for a century just because particles can’t make their minds up whether they are particles or not, or because particles can’t make their minds up whether they are coming or going at the same time as making their minds up about the speed at which they are coming or going.
Psychology subjects not only don’t know what they really are, or whether they are coming or going, they’ll also lie to you about it, and often do not know they’re lying to you. I’d like to see a physicist deal with that degree of contrariness and uncertainty.
Because of this and other difficulties expressed in the above article and the original it does raise another problem that compounds matters: it’s easy for cooks and crooks to make up false and misleading crap and to hide behind the smoke screen thrown up by the genuine difficulties the discipline faces.
Wired reports on cat recognition. Two wins here: cats are the best; and evolution beats ID.
Google’s mysterious X lab built a neural network of 16,000 computer processors with one billion connections and let it browse YouTube, it did what many web users might do — it began to look for cats.
The “brain” simulation was exposed to 10 million randomly selected YouTube video thumbnails over the course of three days and, after being presented with a list of 20,000 different items, it began to recognize pictures of cats using a “deep learning” algorithm.
Take that ID suckers! If a few thousand processors can do this, then a few billion years for evolution to result in systems that recognise and operate in their environment (i.e. life) is a snip. The BBC reports:
The work of the team stands at odds with many image-recognition techniques, which depend on telling a computer to look for specific features of a target object before any are presented to it.
Damn! I’ve been using the Godly method of divinely commanding my software to work, when all the time I should have used evolutionary techniques. Note to self on next sales pitch:
Here’s a computer. Here’s some random code I threw together. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes. It should figure itself out eventually. Disclaimer: being evolutionary, when it does eventually work there’s no telling what it will work at.
On second thoughts, that does sound a little like how I work.